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Sourdough is a strange type of bread. Some love it, some hate it, many have never even heard of it.

For me, it is fascinating alchemy and some of the most fun you can have in your kitchen without falling out with the neighbours! On the down side it can be a nightmare for the amateur baker, which I definitely still am.

If you do develop a taste for it, it’ll knock you back about £3/4 a loaf to buy from a fancy baker or artisan market, as it takes much longer to produce than a standard yeast-risen loaf.

Following the sad demise of my last sourdough loaf, my starter is now active enough to try again. The pic shows how the mixture is bubbling. Use a felt tip to mark the jar and watch it grow, then fall. To bake, you need to ideally catch it on the way up. Trust me, it’s an art that becomes an obsession.

Please join me on my adventures in baking, but be warned – it may get messy!

Isn’t it just bread?

Ideally, the sourdough loaf has fairly largish, irregular holes in it, is fairly chewy, with a crusty outer and a unique sort of flavour. It is AMAZING toasted and great for dipping into just about anything, particularly soups. It does have an indefinable ‘sour’ taste to it though. Like I say, it does divide opinion, but it is a fascinating thing as it doesn’t use yeast to rise. Instead you make a starter, which you feed regularly until it is active enough to use.

If, like me, you were around in the 80s, you may remember the ubiquitous ‘Friendship Cake’ that was doing the rounds then. You gave a friend a jar of it, they fed it, made a cake and passed on a jar of the leftover starter to someone else, and so the cycle went on. Sourdough starter is the same sort of thing. Basically a starter is just water and flour (or Paul Hollywood’s recipe adds grated apple, another uses grapes) that you leave in an airtight container to grow and bubble. After a few days you throw away half (or make fluffy pancakes…) and add more water and flour to feed it until it grows some more. Some starters are over 100 years old! Every starter has a different taste and behaviour – some are wet, some very active, some rise well and the taste is unique. Apparently it’s all to do with the microbes in the flour and how they react with water and even the air in your kitchen.

As I said, my starter has been happily bubbling away for just over a week now, and it’s time to bake!!

Basically I’m using a fairly standard bread recipe, using flour, salt and water. However, instead of using yeast I need to add the sourdough starter. Just to ramp up the tension I am trying to make Paul Hollywood’s Spitfire loaf, which has beer in it. Instead of Spitfire ale I am substituting some dodgy dark brew that my husband is not so keen on drinking, but will probably work well in bread. I also cheat and throw it all to knead in my trusty stand mixer – one that cost a fraction of the Kenwood beauties on GBBO but which does the job perfectly well and saves me hurting my dodgy thumbs! This may not be the best choice for sourdough, but we shall see.

Dough or D’oh?

The trouble for the baker is that sourdough is much wetter than normal bread dough, so much messier and harder to handle. Although Paul and James Morton from GBBO like to say that ‘wetter is better’, they are experienced bakers, whereas I have ended up with a flat puddle of gloop several times.

First the dough has to be kneaded, although it looks more like a very thick cake mix/batter, and then has to rest for seven hours. Yep, you read that right! It then needs to prove again overnight. Not one to rustle up when the kids are gnawing at the breakfast bar. Kneading and knocking back are a real challenge, because the mix is so sticky.

There is no easy way to say this but, basically it wasn’t the best. I find James Morton’s recipes difficult and Paul Hollywood’s ok, but sourdough is an art form. I had failed once again, and had to pour the dough into a loaf tin to bake and it was just about edible – but barely.

I wasn’t going to be beaten so…

I found another method online, which involved folding in quarters, and that helped me to actually produce a loaf with the tell-tale markings on it!!! These come from the proving baskets you use, unless (like me) your dough is too wet to hold a shape. This is the closest I have come to a professional-looking, well-risen, loaf and I was dead chuffed.

This week I also made a kickass feta, mushroom and spinach quiche, rich sourdough gingerbread and two batches of fluffy lemon fruit muffins. Autumn and baking are a match made in heaven.

Will be back soon, with some scrummy Hallowe’en treats!!

Blog by Carole Ogden

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